I’ve realized I’ve had reason to link to this post from last year, just to back up how narrow NBC’s choices for Week 17 really were. Hence, this post, to explain that with the NFL’s all-divisional lineup Week 17, there aren’t that many scenarios that produce a game guaranteed to remain a win-and-in, lose-and-out game after all the other games are played, which is what the NFL likes to plug in to the Sunday night timeslot. Namely, two teams in the same division competing for the same single playoff spot, either division or wild card, and playing each other.
Consider, for a second, two tied teams in the same division that don’t play each other. If the team with the tiebreaker wins, the team without it has nothing to play for. If you put the team with the tiebreaker in primetime, then if the team without the tiebreaker loses, the team with it also has nothing to play for. Putting the two teams a game apart just makes it worse. You need the two teams to be tied AND you need the tiebreaker situation if both teams win to be different from the tiebreaker situation if both teams lose. But the first three tiebreakers are: division games, common games, and conference games, and the NFL has made sure both teams are playing a game that’s all three. Remember, we needed both teams to have the same result, so all three tiebreakers will move in the same direction as well. The next tiebreaker is strength of victory, which you can’t count on.
The situation for the wild card, when competing against teams in other divisions, isn’t much better. The same constraints as in the first half of the last paragraph apply. The first tiebreaker (after head-to-head) is conference games, which both teams are playing. The next tiebreaker is common games, where an opening appears, since common games among teams in different divisions are rare, unless the teams’ divisions played each other. It’s conceivable for one team to play a common game while the other doesn’t… but then the best case scenario is that the two teams finish tied in the common games. And what’s the next tiebreaker? Why, strength of victory, of course.
However, the other reason I wanted to make this post was a post on Pro Football Talk suggesting Broncos-Chiefs might have been selected if the Chargers had lost. While I had said the result that needed to be different was the Chiefs beating the Raiders, and so far as I know that’s still correct, I realized there really isn’t anything going against that scenario. So that provides a loophole that broadens things out a little: if a team would lose a tiebreaker against two other teams in the same division a game back and playing each other, or would win a tiebreaker against two other teams in the same division also tied with them and playing each other, that team has an SNF-Week-17 ready game.
So Bengals-Jets two years ago might have happened, if two of the other wild card contenders were also playing each other. But I suspect the NFL would prefer that sort of game, where one team has nothing to play for, not happen – though it’s far better if it’s a team out of the playoffs, like the Chiefs, than one in the playoffs and resting up for it, like the Bengals two years ago.